It takes a rare kind of courage to live with a 24-hour-a-day threat of violence—and Leon Altemose has just that kind of courage. As president of Altemose Construction Co., Altemose has literally staked his life on his right to run an open-shop business. In 1972, when he refused to knuckle under to union demands that his $15 million Valley Forge Plaza project be 100 percent union, a gang of 1000 union pickets did $300,000 damage to the site. Two months later 18 union men attacked and beat him in broad daylight on a busy Philadelphia street. The unions also attempted (unsuccessfully) to boycott First Pennsylvania Bank, chief backer of Valley Forge Plaza, and Sheraton Hotels, a principal tenant.
Altemose took none of this lying down. The day after the Valley Forge attack, he obtained an unprecedented injunction prohibiting union members from going within a mile of any Altemose construction site. When the unions responded by picketing his company headquarters, 125 were arrested. Eighteen leaders of the Valley Forge attack were subsequently convicted and given stiff fines and jail terms. And the state supreme court upheld the anti-picketing injunction (which remains in effect), but reduced the restriction to 200 yards. Nonetheless, low-level harassment of suppliers (tire slashing, sabotage), 24-hour-a-day picketing, and periodic threats against Altemose and his family have continued to this day.
Despite these problems, Leon Altemose is a success by any standards. At age 35 he heads a complex of 27 companies in the construction and hotel/restaurant fields, a complex he has created from the ground up in 12 short years. His construction experience began in high school, when he assisted his father in designing and building houses. He spent two years studying mechanical engineering at Penn State, but got bored with "drawing gears" and decided to strike out on his own. In 1962, at the age of 22, he founded Altemose Construction Co., which built $250,000 worth of houses its first year. From then on, the business took off, doubling or tripling in volume nearly every year, grossing over $40 million in 1974. Along the way Altemose developed a variety of specialty subsidiaries to handle all phases of the work; e.g., Altemose Excavating Co., Altemose Leasing Co., Century Concrete Co., Altemose Realty, Altemose Architects and Engineers, and more recently, Altemose Security Co., a professional guard service.
Altemose's labor policy is the key to his success—and his troubles. He pays his employees about $2 per hour less than the area union scale, but, very important in the highly cyclical construction business, guarantees them 50 weeks of work per year and gives them a 10 percent annual bonus. As a result, his employees earn as much as their union counterparts, and have proved to be extremely loyal, despite the continued threats of violence against the company. (When the company headquarters were threatened, about 80 shotgun-armed employees showed up to guard the building.) Altemose also ignores restrictive union work rules and craft lines. "My thinking is that we don't need a journeyman plumber to carry pipe," he says. "Why pay skilled rates for laborers' work?" As a result of such policies, Altemose is able to build for substantially less money than union-shop contractors. Further, in picking subcontractors, Altemose goes strictly on the basis of low bids, regardless of whether the subcontractor is unionized. In actual fact, his subcontractors average about 60 percent union-shop.
Altemose stresses that he is not anti-union; he sees his fight as one involving freedom of choice. "The construction industry is the only industry that allows the union to go to the owner of a business, threaten his life, and make a deal for his employees, whom it doesn't even represent," he says. "Why the hell should a business owner ever make a decision on whether his people should organize?"
By taking this stand, Altemose has become something of a "folk hero" in Philadelphia. His crusade has given publicity and emotional force to an open-shop movement in construction that is growing by leaps and bounds. Although Altemose is not the largest open-shop builder, "he was the guy that became the guiding light," says a New York industry official. In 1965 Altemose joined the Associated Builders and Contractors, the nation's leading open-shop construction group. In the past ten years its national membership has grown from 3000 to over 9000 firms, 400 of them in Altemose's Delaware Valley Chapter. His relationship with ABC has been mutually beneficial. "The ABC was the only contractor group which would stand up to the unions. The others were either union controlled or afraid of antagonizing violent union elements," he notes. The ABC's Merit Shop Defense Fund has helped Altemose and other contractors with the heavy legal expenses of fighting union violence.
In 1973 Altemose was named "Construction's Man of the Year" by Engineering News Record. (And his wife, Carol, a 10-year veteran of the firm, who has courageously withstood the death threats and harassment, was named the industry's first "Construction Woman of the Year.") Yet his struggle is not without cost. Altemose gets only one in three of the projects he bids low on, because investors fear union-caused delays. He estimates his total legal and security costs to date have been $2 million, and is seeking contributions from other businesses across the country to carry on. "One of the reasons businessmen have problems," he complains, "is that they have no guts. Too often they back down to avoid a confrontation…Businessmen who act that way deserve what they get."
What is Altemose really after? Ideally, he says, "I just want to be left alone to build my buildings." But life is not that simple, and consequently Altemose has taken his stand. "I believe that everybody has to make a commitment to something in his lifetime…I care about what is happening in this country. If building trade unions can use violence to force our employees out of their jobs and our company out of business, then why can't any pressure group do the same? Can we condone the Ku Klux Klan if it exchanges white sheets and hoods for blue denim and hard hats? I don't think so. At times I am fearful, but I cannot waiver from a commitment that I know is right."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: J. Leon Altemose".